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Juniata Researcher Finds Hormonal Effect of Directional Sense

(Posted September 30, 2002)

HUNTINGDON, Pa. -- You know the old cliché of the husband never pulling over to ask for directions because he doesn't trust his wife's sense of direction? It turns out that there might be a grain of truth in such a sexist assumption depending on the stage of the woman's menstrual cycle, according to a Juniata College psychology researcher who has used video maze games to gauge navigation skills in both men and women.

"The old wives tale is that women are not as good as men at navigation and in general, that's true according to a number of studies," says David Widman, assistant professor of psychology at Juniata. "What we found in this study is that women navigating in a virtual maze will take much longer to complete the maze when in the pre-ovulatory phase of their menstrual cycle -- which is around day 12 in the cycle -- and score virtually the same as men when they are menstruating."

Widman and four student researchers tested 22 females and 16 males in a simple T-maze constructed in a virtual environment within the video game Duke Nukem. The group also tested 19 males and 47 females using a virtual Morris water maze also built in the Duke Nukem environment.

"The scores in these tests suggest that hormone levels during the menstrual cycles have some effect on navigation skills," Widman explains. "During the woman's period, the hormones estrogen and progesterone are at their lowest levels. In the pre-ovulatory phase of the cycle there is a sudden spike in estrogen, which may mean that the hormone in interfering with their navigation ability."

The difference is most apparent when Widman tests subjects in a Morris water maze, virtual environment where players must "wade" through a multisided room to reach a hidden goal. Widman tested subjects navigating the water maze using landmarks and with the landmarks removed.

"Other behavioral studies have demonstrated that women tend to rely on landmarks when navigating in the real world -- for example, telling you to turn right at the brick church, rather than turn west on 17th Street," Widman says. "When we removed the landmarks in the water maze, the women were in really deep doo-doo, taking nearly triple the amount of time to navigate the maze."

Widman's test subject average score results in the water maze using landmarks are:

Menstruating women: 11.8 seconds
Pre-ovulatory women: 16.67 seconds
Men: 11.5 seconds

Widman's test subject average score results in the water maze with all landmarks removed are:

Menstruating women: 29.58 seconds
Pre-ovulatory women: 83.5 seconds
Men: 25.22 seconds

"It seems clear that these hormone levels are affecting the way we use perceptual information in the real world and might affect cognitive ability," Widman says. "The next part of the study we want to explore is whether this is a learning effect or a performance effect."

Widman has presented the research project at meetings of the eastern Psychological Association in 2001 and 2002, and has written a paper on the project that currently is under consideration for publication in the journal Behavioral Neuroscience.

Contact John Wall at wallj@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3132 for more information.